Thursday 23 July 2009

Film: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I write this review in the assumption that you have read the book, and may or may not have seen the film, but don't mind hearing my thoughts on it. Then again, would you be reading this review if you wanted everything about the film to be a complete surprise?

I went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yesterday, and, being a Wednesday, the queue was very nearly out of the door, as probably most of the cinema-goers, like myself, had Orange mobile phones and were taking advantage of the two-for-one offer.

So far, I've considered the Harry Potter films to be either faithful adaptations of the books, or great films in their own right. I considered The Prisoner of Azkaban to be the most impressive visually, but that it felt very different from the book. I was a bit disappointed with Lupin (I don't know if it was his stupid little moustache or plummy voice, or his refusal to say the word, "werewolf.") And talking of werewolves, I was not very impressed with his transformation - he looked as though he got stuck half-way! I was under the impression that a werewolf looked like a wolf, not a wolf-human hybrid. A few things were cut that I thought should have been revealed - such as the identities of Wormtail, Moony, Padfoot and Prongs, that Harry knew by Order of the Phoenix.

The first two movies were very good adaptations, which brought Harry's world to life, with a real sense of atmosphere - but the script was lifted straight off the page with few additions. I think a film adaptation of a book should have enough differences to make it worthwhile to read the book and watch the film, without feeling you are having the same experience twice over, but still keep the overall story, characters, and spirit true.

The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix, I thought, were better overall: more adventurous with the script but without sacrificing the story, but not quite as impressive to look at as Azkaban, to my mind.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the most "epic" of the films. It has a feeling of decided eeriness. This is no longer the fun, Enid Blytonesque world of Hogwarts where although Harry et al get into danger, you know they will be all right. The destruction of the Millenium Bridge, a real landmark, makes you think it's not just the fictional places such as Hogwarts that are in danger but the Muggle world too. In the book, despite the reports of Dementors roaming at large and Death Eater attacks, and Harry's fears about Malfoy being a Death Eater, the story felt pretty safe, as a lot of it is taken up with teenage romantic angst and Harry learning about Voldemort from the safety of Dumbledore's office.

I became more aware of the music in this film that I had been in the others. The score is more dramatic, adding to the unsettling atmosphere, with some choral parts that remind me more of the later installments of The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The script, again, follows the story, with a few minor detours before coming back to the original material, not necessarily using the same scenes or dialogue as Rowling wrote, but serving the same purpose. There was one moment, about halfway through, however, when I did not know quite what was happening. They introduced an incident - Death Eaters attacking The Burrow - that was not in the novel. One thing I admire about Rowling's storytelling is the fact that everything happens for a reason, all the events are linked together. The Death Eater attack seemed to serve no purpose in the story other than reminding the audience of the ever-present danger. It leads nowhere - how can it, without derailing Rowling's entire plot? - and it doesn't ring true, as the Death Eaters could quite easily have killed off Harry and any of the Order, but didn't even seem to try, just taunting them and setting the Burrow alight. Then again, I spent the first minutes of that scene thinking, "what's happening here?" and not really watching as closely as usual.

I realised suddenly, that "Little Whinging, Surrey," must be pretty much where I used to live when I was in my second and third years at university, because when Dumbledore comes to take Harry away, he is hanging about Surbiton station. It was labelled as Surbiton, but it was Harry's nearest train station, so he must have lived in a village on the outskirts. Little Whinging can't have been another name for Berrylands, Tolworth or Hook, as they have their own train stations, as does Thames Ditton - but it could quite logically be another name for Long Ditton, my old home.

There was a sense of danger throughout the film that I didn't get from the book until the "Cave" chapter near the end. In the book, despite the reports of Dementors roaming at large and Death Eater attacks, and Harry's fears about Malfoy being a Death Eater, the story felt pretty safe, as a lot of it is taken up with teenage romantic angst and Harry learning about Voldemort from the safety of Dumbledore's office.

The "Cave" scene, in the book, is where I realised that this was indeed the darkest book of the series yet. In the film it wasn't such a major turning-point as the danger was always there, nearly tangible, but it still had me watching, metaphorically, through the crack in the door. The cinema - already quiet, despite the numbers in the audience - hushed until I hardly dared breathe, as Harry and Dumbledore reached the basin with the potion and the locket. The scene where Dumbledore drinks the potion is, I think, the most horrible part of the entire series, a few pages that seem to drag on forever, as the calm, wise, almost omnipotent Dumbledore, becomes a very old, frail man. The scene was mercifully brief - at least compared to how long it seems to take in the book - but just as powerful. I would even say it is distressing.

Harry enters the cave a boy and leaves a man. The Half-Blood Prince is also the coming-of-age story of his nemesis, Draco Malfoy. Before, just an arrogant, cowardly bully, Malfoy almost becomes a full-blown baddy. Yet, it is clear that he is out of his depth, charged with the task of a hardened villain, but still just a frightened boy, for all his bluster. We are shown his progress as he works on the vanishing cabinet, his tireless efforts, his despair, his emotional battles - because although Malfoy is a nasty piece of work, he is not a Death Eater at heart. Tom Felton did a wonderful job of portraying the tortured youth who is in too deep - although he is looking far older than the sixteen-year-old he is supposed to be. (In actual fact he's my sister's age.)

Recognition also must go to Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. There was something chilling about his performance in this film, as in the book. He is a double agent, spying both for Dumbledore and Voldemort - and gives no clue either way as to where his true loyalties lie. Just as in the book, Rowling gives evidence in favour of him being a good guy and a bad guy, and no definitive proof (until, it seems, the end,) Rickman keeps his face a mask, expressing nothing - and yet you can really feel his torment, at having to live so many lies - that no one can know what he is thinking or doing.

I wasn't disappointed by the final scene - on the Astronomy tower - but it wasn't how I had pictured it. I have a clear image from the book, of Snape sweeping up the stairs, through the crowd of Death Eaters, roughly pushing them aside and standing to face Dumbledore, before pointing his wand and saying the fatal words. In the film, Harry stood below the tower, and Snape saw him and shushed him before creeping up. And Dumbledore's "Severus, please" sounded too calm - it seemed too obvious what he meant, when it should seem like he was begging for mercy. Then again, reading the book, I knew what he really begging before I realised the more obvious - and wrong - meaning. I was disappointed that after Harry called Snape a coward, we didn't see Snape's mask slip for a moment and hear him cry "DON'T - CALL - ME - COWARD!" I found that a very powerful line - Snape has just done the hardest thing of his life - but I can't imagine Rickman's Snape losing his cool like that. It doesn't suit his voice.

On the subject of voices, Lupin sounded more like I thought he should this time - although he still had the posh accent, his voice sounded rougher around the edges. I was sorry not to get the bits of back story - his work for the Order among werewolves, having been bitten as a child by Fenrir Greyback, his budding and reluctant romance with Tonks. But I recognised that was not necessary to the plot, and what we did see of him was powerful. He only had a couple of lines - getting angry with Harry for being "blinded by hatred" of Snape, but we were shown that he is still finding it very difficult being a werewolf. I was also pleased to hear Tonks call him "sweetheart" at one point.

The one thing I should warn the casual watcher of this movie is that it would be wise to familiarise themselves with all of the previous films. The first two or three films can be watched as stand-alone stories, with only a little knowledge required from their predecessors. By the sixth installment of the story, however, there is so much going on that if the viewer has missed a part of the story, or has only seen the others once each, it could get confusing. There are references to earlier stories - Tom Riddle's diary, for example, from The Chamber of Secrets - and characters that we got to know a few stories back, such as Wormtail or the aforementioned Lupin, come in and do their bit without an introduction, and I can imagine that the casual viewer might get confused trying to work out who's who and what they are doing.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the one I have the fondest memories of reading the first time around, and the film adaptation did very well at replicating the experience for me. Yes, there are a lot of minor differences, and it certainly will not replace the book for me, but I shall certainly go to see it again. Already I am looking forward to the DVD.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Jodi Picoult

I have recently finished reading The Tenth Circle, by Jodi Picoult. It was the seventh book that I have read by this author, and I fear that now I have read too many. The magic is wearing off; she no longer has the power to shock me, and that is a great disappointment.

The first of her books that I read was My Sister's Keeper, a Richard and Judy Book Club book, and now a film. I found myself hooked, intrigued, fascinated, unable to see how the situation - a teenage girl suing her parents for the right to refuse donations that would keep her sister alive - could possibly be resolved. It was a page-turner in the true sense of the word; I don't think I took more than a day or two to read it. When the novel started to draw to a close, Picoult succeeded in shocking me with the daughter's revelation, and shocking me again at the very end of the novel with an unforeseen turn of events.

A little later, I read Vanishing Acts. This time, it was a man being tried for the kidnap of his own daughter, who was now an adult and one of the narrators of the story. Again, when his reasons for doing so came out, they came, it seemed, out of nowhere, though there were unsuspected clues scattered throughout the narrative, so no one could accuse Picoult of cheating by withholding information.

The next book was Plain Truth. This time it was an investigation into the death of a newborn baby, but in an Amish community, and again a book that was hard to put down, but now I was starting to see aspects of the plot that seemed a little formulaic. I suspected that Picoult would surprise us once again with an unexpected twist - only, now I was expecting it, I just didn't know what that would be.

As a reader of mysteries - for each of Picoult's novels is a mystery, along with many other things - I like to try to be a step ahead. I read whodunnits as though I were playing Cluedo, attempting to work out the answer before anyone else (in the case of a book, the detective) before looking in the pack and having my answers confirmed. I usually fail. But when I found myself becoming more and more successful when reading Picoult's novels, I started to feel disappointed and dissatisfied. I realised I wanted the writer to be cleverer than me. I wanted to be surprise.

I've read seven of Jodi Picoult's books and found that as I became more familiar with her writing, the more I could work out for myself:

My Sister's Keeper - shocked
Vanishing Acts - shocked
Plain Truth - knew something was coming, didn't know what.
Second Glance - predicted certain elements of the plot
Nineteen Minutes - predicted certain elements
Salem Falls - suspected final surprise twist.
The Tenth Circle - knew final surprise twist.

Don't get me wrong, I am very impressed with Picoult's skills as a writer. She does incredible amounts of research into topics that are not mainstream or overused, giving us a full idea of a culture, belief or even scientific theory that has not been much written about, giving the impression that each one is her specific area of expertise (as I suppose it is, for the period of writing the novel.) She knows how to make us care about the characters, challenge our worldviews and want to know what happens.

However, though I can devour one of her 400-page novels in a single evening, I find myself becoming less impressed with her storytelling style. There is always a shocking twist at the end, but after having read seven of her books, I know that there is a surprise in store - therefore it is not a surprise. Now, I'm picking up on those clues that are supposed to lead the reader to a certain red-herring conclusion - but I'm learning how to look at those clues in another way, so I can deduce the other and true explanation that is intended to come as a shock in the last few pages. Now, Picoult is very clever at hiding those clues, and setting red herrings. Unfortunately, though I wouldn't presume to say I am cleverer still, but I have read enough of her work that I have learned how to find them.

When children's books were two-and-sixpence

Over breakfast I am indulging myself by allowing to read a chapter or two of our old Paddington omnibus each day. When we were little, we had a story-tape of the book, and my most vivid memory from that is the voice of the taxi-driver in the very first chapter, when they are taking Paddington home for the first time. "Bears is sixpence extra. Sticky bears is ninepence." So imagine my disgust when, at work, I discover that they have modernised the currency or taken out all references altogether! The quote is now along the lines of, "Bears is extra. Sticky bears is twice as much again." Firstly, it sounds all wrong. It doesn't scan. Secondly it is inaccurate. Now, I know that when the currency was changed back when my parents were little, it was very confusing and people would talk about sixpence actually being two and a half new pence. But ninepence is not 200% of sixpence. It is 150%. Maths isn't my best subject, never was, but I know that much.

And I got to thinking of the tendency to update classic books, a practice that I find abhorent, unless it is necessary. For example, some old books contain careless, throwaway phrases that are nowadays unacceptable and offensive, and I think it is quite right to remove them. But unless that is the case I think books should be left as they were.

Enid Blyton is another author whose novels are updated. Sometimes, such as in modern editions of The Magic Faraway Tree and The Adventurous Four, even the characters' names are modernised, and in almost all her books the currency is changed from shillings and sixpences to pounds and fifty pences. I had a copy of The Naughtiest Girl Again where the childrens' weekly pocket money was 20p, instead of the original two shillings. Two shillings in old money was a sensible amount of pocket money for children of that age; in new money, 20p won't buy a packet of polos. There was a scene where four children were asked to pay for a broken window out of their combined 80p pocket money. Good luck to them!

But even when there is a decent exchange rate, it is rather insulting to the reader - and it gives the whole book a feeling of inconsistency. Enid Blyton's books are very much of their time, so to give them modern names, modern pocket money, modern clothing, etc, doesn't fit in with that (although I've a nasty suspicion even the slang has changed in some versions: "I say!" to "Wow!" One wonders where it will stop. Will future editions of the Famous Five replace their lashings of ginger beer and new-made bread with Coca-Cola and happy meals? Will things stop being "jolly good" and "horrid" and start being [unrepeatable]?)

Children aren't stupid - at least, they wouldn't be if adults didn't dumb their books down for them. They are quite capable of understanding that a shilling was the currency of the time the book was written, and what "smashing" means. I'm just glad that my copies of these books were, for the most part, untainted by modernisations - but I do wonder if I should buy second-hand copies now, for the benefit of my unborn children, in case they are no longer available in their original text if and when they come into the world.
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